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Sunday, October 05, 2014

Movie Review: The Maze Runner (2014)

I didn't really have high hopes for The Maze Runner (2014).  Sure, I looked forward to seeing it on the off chance that it would be a lot of fun, but I didn't expect it to be a particularly "good" movie.  And it's not, but neither is it "bad."  The Maze Runner is just another entry in a long line of YA dystopia adaptations, one which never seems to escape the confines of a cinematic formula.

At its most basic, The Maze Runner can be summed up as follows:
Thomas wakes up in a mysterious elevator cage without any memory of who or where he is, only to be thrust into the company of a ragtag group of boys who have learned to survive in the Glade, which rests at the center of a massive, murderous maze.  But Thomas isn't as willing to accept the status quo as the rest.  Desperate to understand why they are in the Maze and who designed it, Thomas tries to piece together his fragmented memories and find a way out of the Maze.  Doing so, however, may threaten the entire community...
The premise of the film is fairly standard YA dystopia stuff, although what apparently separates Thomas from the rest of the boys is his curiosity, which sounds less like a magic skill than some kind of behavioral conditioning that the film barely acknowledges.  Fans of the books have been raving about this film, as to be expected, which might explain why it has earned nearly $200mil worldwide as of Oct. 5th, 2014.  But I'm not convinced that The Maze Runner will have a lasting impact.

Clearly, I'm less enthusiastic about this movie than fans of the book.  First, the film ends on a massive cliffhanger that is only barely foreshadowed in the handful of clues offered to us throughout the story.  Though I generally loathe cliffhangers, I did at least expect this one because I had read the novel.  However, what the film doesn't do is provide a cogent motion from "we know absolutely nothing about what is going on, except some vague speculation" to "oh, now we have the whole story because [spoilers]."  The ending is so abrupt that it shatters any semblance of logic the audience had pieced together throughout the rest of the film, leaving a kind of cold, detached sensation that I'm not convinced was intentional -- and if it was, not in the way I mean.  There are likewise numerous gaps in the film's logic, such as why the stingers on the Grievers (the monsters of the maze) have the effect they do or what the Maze has to do with what has happened in the real world (I still don't understand how that part works).

Second, the film's pacing is either stilted or simply "off."  In one important scene, Thomas is attacked by a Runner (folks who map the maze in order to find a way out) who has been stung, but this scene comes out of nowhere without any real buildup, and it ends in a remarkably anticlimactic way.  There are likewise moments in the film which arise in such a hackneyed fashion that I could see the "character development time" coding on the figurative wrapping paper.  These types of scenes jump back and forth in a way that limits the buildup to the climax; for me, this meant that those final moments lacked the impact that they needed to escape the bonds of the cliffhanger.  I almost want to blame this on the script, but I think there is a deeper problem here.

That problem might be that The Maze Runner is utterly forgettable.  The direction, while serviceable, falls short of delivering something that would separate this film from its contemporaries.  There is tension here, but it is lackluster, simple.  Take this scene, for example:
This is the first time we hear the sound of the Maze or witness the doors closing, and it is clear that what we're supposed to feel is not dissimilar to what Thomas' face conveys:  fear and confusion.  But what the scene evoked for me was less tension, fear, or confusion, but rather the activity of producing those feelings.  I should feel chilled by that howling wind or the sudden realization that something weird is going on.  A shift of sound or a manipulation of perspective shots could do the trick, but what this clip does -- and what much of The Maze Runner does -- is give me the feeling of a feeling, but rarely the feeling itself.  Simulacrum, if you will.

This became apparent to me upon rewatching Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014).  Though an imperfect film, there's a clear sense in Godzilla that Edwards understood the scale of a world at the mercy of giant monsters.  Thus, we end up with scenes like this:
The above clip is the first time we see Godzilla "in full," though he remains too larger for the film's frame.  The entire scene is built on tension, moving from the almost ant-like motion of humanity and its devices to the slow, deliberate crush of Godzilla's foot, which severs the massive wall of sound, as if suggesting that everything has simply stopped.  And then the roar.  That roar.  The buildup to it is gorgeous, with the discordant choir building to crescendo.  It's beauty incarnate.

To be fair to The Maze Runner, perhaps I should point to a genre-related example:  The Hunger Games (2012).  In doing so, however, I hope it will become apparent what I mean when I suggest that The Maze Runner manages to be serviceable, but never seems to use the various regions of the filmic space to convey the feelings it intends the audience to receive, just as its characters, as I'll discuss later, so often lack those same emotions (even Thomas seems less scared than utterly confused in the clip provided above).  Take the Cornucopia sequence from The Hunger Games as an example:
As in the Godzilla clip, this sequence uses sound to enhance the tension of the scene, rolling in and out from the discordant music to Katniss' footfalls and back again.  Additionally, the scene uses light to give that sense of confusion and disorientation, albeit somewhat unsuccessfully because it doesn't maintain the POV shot long enough in my opinion.  Basically, there's depth here.  Certainly, neither The Hunger Games nor Godzilla are as well-crafted as, say, 12 Years a Slave (2013) or the low-key science fiction "comedy, Her (2013), but they do make use of the filmic space at least in a simplistically "deep" way to enhance the spectacle of what we're seeing.  But The Maze Runner is saturated, simplistic, and thin.

This also comes down the film's inability to present characters with much in the way of actual character or development.  The lone tragic villain, Gally (played by Will Poulter), is one of the only characters with any real arc, moving from stern toughy to violent overlord who wants to preserve the existing order out of fear.  But even he is an archetype of sorts, never rising above the scripted narrative we should have all seen coming from the first fifteen minutes of the film.  The same could be said of Chuck (Blake Cooper), the adorable chubby kid who thinks about the parents he's never met -- my friend and I knew exactly what would happen to him in the end.[1]  But the rest of the characters are simplistic and, sadly, dull.  The lead, Thomas (Dylan O'Brien), spends most of the film with a confused look on his face, which would be fine for the first twenty minutes, but quickly becomes irritating as you realize this is the only emotion he seems to have:  confused fear with a side of confused yelling.  There's little else to him, and that can't be explained away by his initial amnesia, unless we're assuming (and falsely, given how the narrative progresses) that the builders of the Maze stripped everyone of their personalities before leaving them to their own devices.  Instead, we just have to assume Thomas was as dull before the Maze.
This is doubly true of the only main female character in the novel -- Teresa (Kaya Scodelario).  At no point do we learn anything about her that would suggest that she is anything other than a female anomaly.  What little we do learn is filtered through Thomas, who remains the focal point for the conspiracy underlying the construction of the Maze.  The result:  Teresa becomes an object, not in the sense of a "sex object," but in the most literal sense of the term.  She's just this thing that exists in the movie to serve the plot.  Her gender is incidental.  Meaningless.  In fact, the only reason Teresa must be female is so that the boys can comment on the fact that they don't know anything about women -- though, in fairness, the jokes are had at the expense of the boys and are less about sex than about their supreme ignorance about what women are like as people.[2]  Otherwise, Teresa's sex is completely irrelevant to the plot.  This wouldn't be a problem if not for the fact that she is the only girl for most of the film, and there's no way to ignore that fact when so much of the story that precedes her entry is coded as irredeemably "male" (tribal man fights, drinking alcohol to put fuzz on your whatsits, and so on).

All of the characters suffer from this dull, archetypal mindlessness.  Given that the bulk of the film focuses on life in the Maze, this dullness allowed me to wander to the Maze itself.  Rather than the environmental horror it was meant to be, it became the one true character in the entire novel, adapting and shifting from start to finish to accommodate the plot changes.  That the Maze was more memorable than the people is telling of the film's lackluster performance in most other respects.
On so many levels, The Maze Runner is simply "present."  It never rises up to offer anything beyond the models on which it is clearly based, nor does it ever totally fail at imitation.  Even an ambitious failure would have been notable, but Wes Ball's directorial debut (at the feature length level) aims for comfort.  While I'm sure fans of the books will enjoy the film, I'm convinced that The Maze Runner will be forgotten because it isn't bold enough to transcend its genre.[3]  I started to forget the movie mere days after seeing it, not because I thought it was a bad film, but because it seemed to me to be a film without a purpose other than mere entertainment -- and even on that mission, it was fleeting.  Perhaps I am becoming bored with the YA dystopian model in film in the same way that I have become bored with it in literature:  imitation that barely meets the burden of original take.  Here, though, I think the problem has less to do with the narratives than it does with their presentation.  The Maze Runner was an OK book, but I always thought it would make a better movie; unfortunately, I may have been wrong.

Directing: 2/5
Cast: 2/5
Writing:  2/5
Visuals: 4/5 (the visuals are quite nice, actually, even if they are not presented in a particularly compelling way)
Adaptation: 2/5 (though reasonably faithful to the book, I don't think that actually works in its favor)
Overall:  2.4/5 (48%)(for lackluster direction, dull characterization, and forgettable-ness)
Inflated Grade:  C- (I'm tempted to give this a D+, but I don't think it's actually bad enough to qualify as Torture Cinema)


[1]:  Cooper does give one hell of a final performance, though.

[2]:  Honestly, I don't think the film relays a sexist message here.  There is only one noticeable joke about Teresa's gender, which occurs after she has hidden herself away in a watchtower and begun chucking rocks at the boys in an effort to get them to go away (mostly because she has no idea what is going on and they're trying to help her through the transition period).  One of the boys comments, "Is this what girls are like?," indicating to the audience that a) he's never seen a girl in his entire life, and b) he has no idea what to expect from a girl given that his daily experiences involve boys.

[3]:  Granted, The Maze Runner is a modified form of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth myth from ancient Greece.

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